What you call “time” is racist: How Colonial rule obliterated traditional cultural ways of understanding time
Like many other things we take for granted, what we call ‘’time’ is really just another act of cultural imperialism that has served as violence against the traditional ways of being of oppressed and marginalized people, who were forced to give up their traditional ways of knowing time while under colonial rule.
Most of us don’t think twice about the fact that in the West, we use twenty-four-hour clocks and 365/366-days-in-a-year-calendars.But it is these most fundamental assumptions that are questioned the least, and they are also the ones most deserving of scrutiny. Time hasn’t always been measured this way — whxte people just want you to think that it was.
The Indigenous people who inhabited North America before whxte settlers did did not use clocks, and so, our current ways of knowing time are inherently colonial in nature in the West because settlers brought them over here and decided their rules now belonged to this land as well. It’s time for us to examine the ways different peoples used different conceptions of time, before settlers forced us all into the current system. Perhaps we can seek justice in restoring traditional means of knowing time to those who had their bodies violently forced into the framework of Western time measurements.
As is usually the case with colonial constructs, we have been conditioned to accept the twenty-four hour clock as the most standardized and rational means of measuring time. Defenders of the colonial time system (CTS) might point to “scientific” justification for basing our conception of time on a twenty-four hour cycle, by pointing to phenomena like the rotation of the earth around its own axis (and for larger measurements of time, like years, the rotation of the sun around the earth). But scientists only fairly recently discovered that the sun moved at all, and so, the conceptions of time of ancient people were based on different metrics. It would be cultural imperialism to proclaim that the CTS is the superior model for measuring time over all its competitors, regardless of whatever justification it aims to offer for itself. After all, we have seen with time and time again that bigotry loves to call itself science in attempt to avoid criticism, and I see no reason why we should accept science as a defence of the superiority of the CTS over Other Ways of Knowing Time.
Trying to justify CTS in scientific terms, in fact, is so problematic that even Wikipedia rejects its scientific relevance in the opening paragraphs on the entry on time. We see from statements such as:
“Time is used to define other quantities — such as velocity — so defining time in terms of such quantities would result in circularity of definition,”
“The operational definition of time does not address what the fundamental nature of it is. It does not address why events can happen forward and backward in space, whereas events only happen in the forward progress of time.”
…that not even Western scientists truly understand what time really is. If time cannot be explicated even by scientists without appealing to circularity, and if the definition of time does not address what time actually is, then the operational definition of time as conceived of by Western scientists actually does nothing to bring us closer towards a ‘scientific’ notion of time that can be universalized. If the real foundations of the CTS are based on such shaky science, why should the rest of the world continue using it?
When whxte settlers set up their new ‘civilizations’ across the world, they forced peoples indigenous to the lands they were stealing to conform to their rigid social structures; for instance, forcing colonized people to abide by strict gender norms. CTS, like gender, is another one of those systems by which colonized people were robbed of their culture and traditional ways. Some forms of Other Ways of Knowing Time include lunar calendars, which measured time in correspondence to the way the moon moved across the sky. The Mayans believed there were eighteen months with twenty days each. Why should we accept that there are twelve months with thirty days each? The distinction between their Other Ways of Knowing Time and the CTS seems fairly arbitrary when we understand the shaky scientific foundations the CTS relies upon.
As the French Revolutionary Calendar proves, time is also inherently political, with the CTS possessing distinctly Christian connotations on top of its colonial implications, and changing it can be a means of actualizing justice. Following the success of the French Revolution, the traditional calendar was rejected, for the sake of creating something that uniquely belonged to the French people and to the working class, not the totalitarian regime of the Catholic Church that propagated its popularity. With royal and religious implications removed from the calendar, the French people created something they could call their own. Every day under this new calendar featured ten hours of a hundred minutes of a hundred seconds, and this system was used for years until eventually, imperialist pressures caused them to regress back to the traditional calendar. If the French could actualize a change like this back in the 1780s, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t today, seeing as all our measures of time are already digitalized and a few simple algorithms could quickly and seamlessly transform the way we measure it with little to no disruption to our personal lives.
If we truly care about achieving social justice, we can change the way we, in a given society, measure time. It’s just a matter of wanting to change our ways of measuring time, and an inconvenient but brief transitional period from which we move from one measure of time to another. We’ll get used to it — as whxte settlers, it’s one of the easiest ways we can return power to communities of colour, by allowing them to reinstate their traditional and oftentimes sacred Other Ways of Knowing Time. We cannot prioritize the brief discomfort we will experience during these transitional periods over their mental, spiritual and cultural wellbeing.
Nobody is free until all of us are free, and colonized people will never be free until they are living under the conception of time native to their culture again and time-justice has been restored. The CTS belongs in the trash bin of history. And if you disagree, you might need to reconsider your own allyship and whether you’re a part of the problem.
-a.j. morgan-kelly//decolonize. liberate. resist.